Global Voices: Marking holidays matters, wherever you are

’Twas the night before Christmas
In the deep space abyss
Not a creature was stirring
Except Commander Chris

You may not believe in the jolly man who flies around to hand out presents, but on Christmas Eve in 2012, we guarantee he was there, 400 kilometres above Earth, rocketing around the planet at 7.6 kilometres per second.

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Chris Hadfield floated weightlessly through the International Space Station, playing Santa Claus, his crew fast asleep. Before the launch, he’d asked the crew’s families to write cards for their loved ones. Then, there he was, hiding those messages for the other five astronauts to find on Christmas morning.

“Except, it wasn't really Christmas morning, because when is morning [in space]?” said Hadfield, explaining the complications of marking holidays while orbiting Earth every 92 minutes and seeing 16 sunrises each day.

We’ve celebrated the holidays with family in the Amazon and the Maasai Mara, pausing long enough to exchange gifts and catch up before returning to the build site, helping to erect a school or dig a well. We know how important traditions are, even for those whose schedules demand unconventional Christmases. Seeking some perspective, we turned to Hadfield, who talked to us about turkey, trees, dessert, and the crucial task of bringing Earth-bound traditions to outer space.

On the ground, tables are laden with sugar cookies and cakes. In the microgravity of the space station, crumbs pose a serious threat, and can clog ventilation filters. The solution was a dense, but divisive, treat. Hadfield’s crew enjoyed a traditional fruitcake on Christmas day.

“Strangely enough, it was made by Trappist Monks in the Ozarks [in the U.S.],” Hadfield recalled. “It kept beautifully. It’s not crumbly, so we just Velcroed the package to the table and everyone could grab a little bit on the way by.”

Compared with cutting-edge experiments and space-walks, ensuring that holiday desserts can withstand space travel may seem frivolous. But in space, just like on Earth, this time of year is a chance to reset, and focus on our wellbeing and relationships. Fruitcake, stockings and tinsel are more powerful symbols to help mark this reflection than we realize, until we know that even astronauts turn to them in the cold recesses of space.

“For birthdays, for holidays, for deaths in the family, I treated it [all] very seriously because psychological health is fundamental to everything else being successful,” Hadfield said.

There was the special meal request: ready-to-eat turkey, reconstituted potatoes and processed vegetables. There was the two-foot tall artificial Christmas tree, Velcroed to a wall. There were personalized Christmas stockings stuffed full of chocolate and nuts.

Preparation for all holidays was vital to the mission. Hadfield’s American and Russian crew picked holidays from their respective cultures to celebrate, planning creative ways to make them both special and familiar.

Now home with his family, Hadfield shares that outlook with others, bringing that cross-cultural perspective to his upcoming science-based variety show, Generator, premièring in Toronto in January.

Hadfield's holiday in outer space offers a new perspective for terrestrial-bound merry-makers. Even floating through space, customs ground us.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.

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